by Scott Kacsmar
Good news: the 2017 NFL season did not set any record for most injuries. In fact, injuries were actually down from the 2016 season, as measured by total adjusted games lost (AGL) across the league. However, it was impossible to cover last season without harping on the injuries to so many important and notable players.
Just start with the quarterback position where I wrote in November how this was shaping up to be the worst season on record for big-name quarterback injuries. Philadelphia's Carson Wentz went down after that article was published, adding to a list of serious injuries to Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford, and rookie sensation Deshaun Watson.
Quarterback injuries obviously have the biggest impact on team performance, but every position was loading up on big-name injuries in 2017. Arizona running back David Johnson was a fantasy favorite, but he did not finish Week 1's contest before his season ended. Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the NFL's best wide receivers, but he only played four games. Tight end Tyler Eifert had another lost season for the Bengals. Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas played every one of the first 10,363 snaps in his career, but then a torn triceps ended his season (and his career, as he just announced his retirement this month). He was joined on the injured reserve list by fellow left tackles Jason Peters and Trent Williams, as well as guards Mike Iupati and Marshal Yanda.
This is more than just a loss of a great talent -- many of these players helped define their squad's identity on that side of the ball. Teams such as the Colts, Texans, Cardinals, Seahawks, and Giants were just never the same after those big injuries last year. Injuries to competitors also played a role in helping teams such as the Bills, Rams, Jaguars, Eagles, and Titans all finally return to the postseason in 2017, a true Upside-Down season.
For those unfamiliar with AGL, we do not simply add up the number of games missed. We are able to quantify how much teams were affected by injuries based on two principles: (1) Injuries to starters, injury replacements, and important situational reserves (No. 3 wide receiver, receiving backs, nickel corner, etc.) matter more than injuries to benchwarmers; and (2) Injured players who do take the field are usually playing with reduced ability, which is why AGL is based not strictly on whether the player is active for the game or not, but instead is based on the player's game status that week (out, doubtful, questionable or probable/Blank).
Last year was the second season in which the NFL no longer used "probable" in the Game Status Reports. This has changed the way we collect and analyze our data. We have a large number of players who appeared on the injury practice reports during the week, but they do not receive an official Game Status Report designation since "probable" no longer exists. We started calling these players "The Blanks" last year, and just like the way probable used to work, these players are active more than 95 percent of the time. Frankly, they should be active 100 percent of the time if you read this 2017 explanation from the NFL on how the reports should work now:
If a player was listed on the club's Practice Report during the week, but is not listed on the club's Game Status Report, it means that the club is certain the player will play. If the player is then deactivated for the game, the club will be required to provide an explanation. If the explanation is inadequate or unpersuasive, a compliance investigation or enforcement proceeding may be initiated.
Roughly 57 explanations were needed in 2017, because that's how many players we found who were inactive without being on the Game Status Report. None of those players were starters or even key backups, so this is often just the case of healthy scratches of third-string quarterbacks or depth-chart buried backs and linebackers. Nothing shady here (yet).
We actually found an increase of almost 500 Blanks from 2016, but the usage of questionable was down. However, players listed as questionable did not play (DNP) 33.0 percent of the time, as opposed to 25.8 percent in 2016.
|Game Status Report Results, 2016-17|
There were also four 2017 players listed as "doubtful" who still managed to play that week, albeit in limited roles. Green Bay's Davon House started his Week 14 game after being listed as doubtful, but he did not finish that game and was out for Week 15. Oddly enough, this happened three times in Week 15 with Kyle Rudolph (Vikings), Landon Collins (Giants), and Michael Johnson (Bengals) each starting a game. Collins only played 18 snaps and did not register a solo tackle. Rudolph caught a short touchdown, but only played a season-low 21 snaps. Johnson played 43 snaps, or 64 percent of his team's total that day. That makes you wonder if any of these efforts were really worth it in risking further injury.
Before we get to the 2017 AGL results, we'll look at how specific teams used the Game Status Report.
2017's Injury Reporting Tactics
The rules leave some gray area for teams to interpret, and we are definitely seeing some trends associated with specific teams and coaching staffs in how they choose to file these reports. The following table shows how many Blanks and questionable players each team had in the 2017 regular season, and how often those teams played those players that week.
|2017 Injury Reports: The Blanks (New Probable) and Questionable Players|
In 2016, Dallas was the only team to never report Blanks, but five other teams (Ravens, Patriots, Raiders, Dolphins, and Buccaneers) also had fewer than 10. In 2017, only Baltimore (seven) used fewer than 29 Blanks, but those other five teams were still on the low end too. Perhaps to compensate, Baltimore's 89 questionable players were the second-highest total in the league, and the 85.4 percent rate of play was also the second-highest. So the Ravens are one team that is probably listing too many injuries as questionable when they should be more certain the player is going to play that week.
Another continuing trend is the Houston Texans' love for reporting minor injuries (not that there's anything wrong with that). This is the fifth season in a row where the Texans led all teams with the most minor injuries reported. This doesn't appear to be a Bill O'Brien thing since it goes back to 2013, Gary Kubiak's final season on the job. It also isn't just about public relations, a job that switched over to Amy Palcic in 2016. Through e-mail, Palcic told FO that while the list of injuries is given to the PR staff, that list is produced by the medical staff and approved by football operations before it is submitted to the league. Houston's head trainer and general manager were two constants during this five-year stretch, so that's really where this is coming from each year. This is also the fourth time in the last five years where the Jets finished second to the Texans in most Blanks or probable players, so that is the other franchise that is very forthcoming with a list of injuries.
Leaguewide, the Blanks played 95.9 percent of the time, and every team was at 91.5 percent or higher except for the Colts (84.8 percent), who had their own injury controversy in 2017. Veteran cornerback Vontae Davis was once considered the key player in this defense, but his play had fallen off in recent years. His health did too in 2017, with a groin injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. However, Davis was benched for what was considered poor play even though the groin injury persisted. After Davis chose to have the season-ending surgery in November, the Colts actually just released him. Beyond Davis' unceremonious ending, the Colts made running back Matt Jones and rookie corner Quincy Wilson "healthy scratches" twice each to account for four of the seven times they did not play a Blank.
Just over two-thirds (67 percent) of questionable players played that week, but six teams fell under the 50-percent mark, which means those teams should have considered more "doubtful" designations for players who were unlikely to play. The Steelers played just 6-of-22 questionable players for a league-low rate of 27.3 percent. That's the third time since 2014 that the Steelers had the lowest play rate of questionable players, as only 5-of-25 questionable Steelers were active in the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
This is also the third year in a row (Dan Quinn's whole tenure) that Atlanta used questionable less often than any team, with just 10 players in 2017. The only other team with fewer than 20 questionable players was Tennessee (15), which had been rarely playing its questionable players in previous years under Mike Mularkey, but did so at the average rate of two-thirds this season.
In 2016, Washington's Jay Gruden played 89.4 percent of his "questionable" players, the second-highest rate in the league. He had the highest rate in his 2014 rookie season and was middle-of-the-pack in 2015. In 2017 he had the sixth-highest rate played, but also had to use questionable more than any team (94 times), as you will see below.
Tampa Bay has been the team with the most questionable use of questionable in the two years since Dirk Koetter took over as head coach. In 2016, the Buccaneers played 43-of-47 questionable players for a league-high 91.5 percent rate. In 2017, the Buccaneers played 53-of-57 questionable players for a league-high 93.0 percent rate. Basically, if Tampa Bay lists someone as questionable, he's almost certainly going to play that week. That's not the intended use of the designation. If it's that high of a certainty that the player is going to play, then he should not be listed on the Game Status Report. He should be a Blank, which Tampa Bay rarely uses.
2017 AGL Results
Last year, Chicago set the new benchmark for AGL in a season. The Bears almost led the league in injuries again, but a 10-game suspension to injured linebacker Jerrell Freeman (removing him from AGL for that period) was enough to give another old-school NFC team the crown. Since there were some changes to the participation rates for questionable players, we recalculated AGL totals for 2016. Those new totals are presented along with the 2017 numbers in the following table. The 2016 Bears still hold the record with 158.8 AGL.
|Team||2017 AGL||Rk||2016 AGL||Rk|
|Team||2017 AGL||Rk||2016 AGL||Rk|
Note: these numbers are subject to change between now and the release of Football Outsiders Almanac 2018.
When we looked at AGL for head coaches last year, Jay Gruden was only surpassed by Mike McCoy's San Diego teams. After Washington finished last in AGL in 2017, we can say that Gruden has had the most injured teams of any coach since 2002. This 2017 total does not even include anything for safety Su'a Cravens, who shocked everyone when he decided to retire a week before the regular season. He was placed on an exempt list and missed the entire season after getting treated for post-concussion syndrome. Middle linebacker Mason Foster (11.3 AGL) and first-round rookie Jonathan Allen (11.0 AGL) were Washington's two biggest losses by AGL. The skill positions also lost tight end Jordan Reed (8.3 AGL), running backs Rob Kelley (8.6 AGL) and Chris Thompson (6.1 AGL), and wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (7.1 AGL) for extended periods of time. As we'll see next week in the unit breakdowns, the depth of injuries along the offensive line really pushed Washington over the top here. Washington had a league-high 10 players incur at least 6.0 AGL.
Chicago came awfully close to leading the league in AGL for the second year in a row. Wide receivers Cameron Meredith (16.0 AGL) and Kevin White (15.0 AGL) accounted for 31.0 AGL on their own. Throw in 8.0 AGL for tight end Zach Miller, and you can see why it was so crucial for the Bears to add healthy young talent (Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton) at the skill positions for Mitchell Trubisky's second year.
This also continues a recent trend where the team finishing last in AGL has had a rough following season as well. From 2002 to 2011, the 32nd-ranked AGL team finished on average at 16.0 the following season, close to average. Since 2012, the 32nd-ranked AGL team has averaged a next-season ranking of 26.6. Four times in five years, the team that finished in last place finished 31st or 32nd in AGL the next year. Only the 2016 Giants improved to seventh, but that was after the Giants did the unthinkable and led the league in AGL three years in a row (2013 to 2015). The Giants also fell back to 25th this past season and fired head coach Ben McAdoo. The Colts fired Chuck Pagano after his team finished 26th in AGL (16 big ones from Andrew Luck), the fifth time in his six years they finished 20th or worse. John Fox is of course out in Chicago too, so they all follow in Mike McCoy's footsteps from last year in being removed after some injury-plagued years and disappointment. Could Adam Gase be on a similar path in Miami after the Dolphins racked up more than 100 AGL for the second year in a row? It can't help that they have jettisoned away players such as Jay Ajayi, Jarvis Landry, Ndamukong Suh, Mike Pouncey, etc., in the last few months.
The top 14 teams in AGL included 10 playoff teams, though the Super Bowl participants were close to average at 13th (Eagles) and 14th (Patriots). Super Bowl MVP quarterback Nick Foles was the Backup of the Year after what he did in the two championship games, but the Eagles also did a really fine job of overcoming the losses of Darren Sproles (13.0 AGL), Jason Peters (9.0 AGL), and Jordan Hicks (9.7 AGL) in addition to Carson Wentz (3.0 AGL). Danny Amendola did his best Julian Edelman (16.0 AGL) impersonation all year, but the Patriots could never find an impact play on defense in the big game without Dont'a Hightower (10.9 AGL) available. Malcolm Butler was available, but… (too soon?)
The Saints (24th) were the only team ranked 20th or lower in AGL to make the playoffs last year. Long playoff streaks ended for the Seahawks (five years) and Packers (eight years). We know Green Bay has made the playoffs before with worse AGL rankings, but Aaron Rodgers was too serious a loss for Green Bay to overcome. The Seahawks had to deal with big injuries to Cliff Avril (12.0 AGL), Richard Sherman (8.1 AGL), Kam Chancellor (7.3 AGL), and they couldn't keep a running back upright all year. Seattle last ranked in the twenties in AGL in 2011 (27th), which was also the last time the team failed to make the playoffs.
Not to bury the lede, but the Rams have made some cool history by becoming the first team since 2002 to have the lowest AGL in back-to-back seasons. I spent time last year bashing Jeff Fisher's underachieving with 2016's healthiest roster, but Sean McVay did not let the health streak go to waste. In fact, my prediction was slightly off on the Rams: "The Rams will almost undoubtedly suffer more injuries in 2017, but if new coach Sean McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can get the most out of these high draft picks, then the team should rise above its usual 7-9 bullsh*t." Obviously, while the Rams did go 11-5 with a huge transformation at quarterback with Jared Goff, they did not actually suffer more injuries. Their AGL shrunk from 30.7 to 15.6, the lowest total for any team in the last seven seasons. The Rams with the highest AGL were Kayvon Webster (3.7), Lamarcus Joyner (2.4), and Robert Woods (2.3). Only Webster was out for the playoffs. That's an incredible bill of health for a season these days. If you want a knock against McVay so far, it would be that we don't know how he'll react to replacing injured players since he didn't need to do it in 2017. Expectations will only be higher in 2018 for this team, but it's hard not to expect some more injuries this time around.
Then again, we also saw the Falcons and Titans retain low AGL numbers (top six) from 2016 to 2017. The Steelers were this year's Healthy Except at the Worst Times team, a title given in the past to the 2014 Broncos, 2015 Bengals, and 2016 Seahawks. Pittsburgh only had 30.5 AGL, but may have had the scariest injury with the worst optics when Ryan Shazier injured his spine in Cincinnati. His playing future is very much up in the air, and the Steelers really struggled without him against some lesser offenses to end the season. Antonio Brown also left the big Week 15 showdown to decide home-field advantage with New England with a calf injury. Maybe there never would have been a controversial Jesse James finish if Brown had been in there on third-and-4 before the two-minute warning. Considering that finish may actually get the NFL to change the catch rule, let's accept things as they were, but a season with a few less injuries to star players would be nice.
On Monday, we will look at the AGL breakdown by units.